Classical Chinese dance is demanding, elegant and refined. A traditional dance form with a training system, similar to ballet, that requires disciplined bodies and minds. Bodies that are lean, limber and skilled at making the impossible look effortless.
Teresa Du was not lean and limber when she decided at the age of 13 that she wanted to follow in her big sister’s footsteps to become a classical Chinese dancer. She was more than 20 pounds overweight. But her determination to overcome challenges and improve herself served her well even before she started her formal dance training. She changed her lifestyle, lost the excess weight, and was accepted to the Fei Tian Academy of the Arts in New York.
The Fei Tian Academy specializes in classical Chinese dance and is the training ground for the professional company: Shen Yun Performing Arts. The company, based in New York state, has brought classical Chinese dance to North American audiences. The company’s dancers are beautifully trained and disciplined like any professional dancers, but with it’s cultural mandate of ‘preserving 5,000 years of Chinese culture’ its dancers learn more than technique and choreography.
You must first empty your cup to fill it with tea
Teresa uses an analogy to explain the importance of purifying one’s mind in order to improve one’s dancing. “If you have a tea cup that’s already filled with tea and you add more to it, it will just overflow,” she says. “You have to empty it first to fill it anew. Only when you purify your mind and release other thoughts can you fill yourself with what you need to dance well.
The intricacies of classical Chinese dance require much consideration.” Du goes onto explain:
“You have to find your inner bearing, develop your flexibility; you have to see which angle your moves look best in, how to execute your moves, how to get into a certain character.”
Du has always done well in school and considers herself academic. She feels that “dancing is actually harder than academics, because you have to think of so many things at once. It’s a mental challenge as well as a physical challenge.”
Familial bonds and encouragement
Du was 15 years old when she started at Fei Tian, and her strongest first impression was the sense of being among family. At her old school in Houston, Texas, where she grew up, she had good friends, but at Fei Tian, “It was like all of my classmates became my sisters. I had 14 or 15 sisters.”
Her big sister who had first inspired her to become a dancer tours with one of Shen Yun’s other four companies, but Du nonetheless feels plenty of sisterly love around her.
Onstage, the dancers often whisper to each other, “Jiayou!” This translates literally as “Add oil!” But the idea is along the lines of one person “filling up” another person with good energy and encouragement. When the dancers say “Jiayou” to each other, they are giving each other a boost.
Although Du grew up in the United States, her parents — who had moved from Changchun, China, in 1996 — tried to raise her with an appreciation of traditional Chinese culture. As a child, she memorized Tang Dynasty poems and learned to play the guzheng, also known as the Chinese zither, a stringed instrument with a history of more than 2,500 years.
The depth and significance of the poems and songs she learned were lost on her as a child, she says. But she has come to appreciate Chinese culture more through her time with Shen Yun. For example, she says, learning about the principle of yin and yang has enriched her perspective on life.
Balancing yin, yang, and handkerchiefs
Yin and yang are the two opposite extremes, yet they are connected and balanced. Du explains that one aspect of this is that, “Once you reach your peak, you have to start going down. Nothing is everlasting; you have to always try hard.” This understanding has given Du a sense of the impermanence of a life in dance and the value of continually striving and not resting on one’s laurels. She understands that training, practice and perfecting are on-going and in the supportive atmosphere of Shen Yun she finds balance.
In some of the dances, the dancers twirl colourful handkerchiefs. Each handkerchief is balanced on the tip of a dancer’s forefinger and spun so quickly it looks like a spinning plate. It is a dazzling move, very hard to master, but there’s always encouragement and the reward of success to balance the hard work.
“We will sometimes just spin both hankies at once 1,000 times to practice. If someone can’t find the way to master it, people will help without asking. During tours, when people were having trouble with their hankies, the others would start cheering them on. It’s very touching. You don’t focus on yourself; you focus on the entire group and this person who is in need of help.”
And when you get it right; being onstage dancing and spinning the handkerchiefs is exhilarating, she says. “It’s so exciting and cute, it feels really energetic and bubbly, I have a lot of fun.”
Du says that when she performs, she feels a profound energy. “I feel like no matter how tired I am, as soon as the music starts and the curtains come up, I feel this excess amount of energy, and an adrenaline rush.”
When the performance is over and the dancers get a standing ovation, Du says she feels a sense of accomplishment. The feeling of having positively impacted the lives of the people in the audience, Du says; “It’s an honour for me.” This honour reminds her that the principles of traditional culture that she and her fellow dancers practice every day are a big part of keeping 5000 years of traditional Chinese culture alive.